All is suffering, all is fleeting. Such a depressing thought can surely put a damper on someone’s life view. However, as a direct result of our exposure to classical tragedy, English 213 students now know that nothing in literature is depressing, even if everything in life is fleeting. Tragedy teaches us, through example, how to deal with some of the worst situations we will encounter in our short lives.
Modern tragedy can be defined as “a dramatic composition, often in verse, dealing with a serious or somber theme, typically that of a great person destined through a flaw of character or conflict with some over-powering force, as fate or society, to downfall or destruction (dictionary.com). A definition like this has been honed over many centuries of composition and performance of tragedies, much like the genre itself. Tragedy as a literary genre has grown from The Trojan Women into Titus Andronicus, into King Lear, and even into current movies like The Changeling. As the world changed over thousands of years, many facets of tragedy have changed as well. Modern tragedy encompasses much more than the death of children and loved ones. Modern tragedy tends to deal with events so mundane that looking at them as tragic makes our very lives much more, well, tragic. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman seems like a prime example. The main character, Willy Loman, is a salesman in
Classical tragedy, on the other hand, is much easier to define and describe. Aristotle defined tragedy as “an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude.” He also pioneered the concepts of a fall from high to low and catharsis. Catharsis describes a sense of cleansing of emotions like pity and fear through watching or reading a piece of tragic literature. A viewer/reader should feel lighter and a bit happier after experiencing a piece of tragedy. In fact, the lack of catharsis is one of the biggest arguments against plays like Death of a Salesman as tragedies. Plays like that are not tragic enough to elicit such feelings in their viewers. They are just not tragic enough to be tragedies, in the Aristotelian sense of the word.
Among the all-time greatest creators of cathartic literature is Euripides. Euripides is one of the three great Greek tragedians. The Trojan Women, his characteristically melodramatic play still leaves audiences and readers in tears during Andromache’s plea for her child’s life and Hecuba’s eulogy of her grandson. At the end of the play, audiences feel purged and refreshed, thus encompassing and personifying catharsis, even thousands of years after the idea’s conception.
The concepts and definitions of tragedy and classical literature are simple enough to memorize and retain, but not until a person sees these concepts play out in real life does he understand that the past always has and always will possess the present. All semester, I have noticed the theme of this class creep into my everyday life in the form of an argument with my sister or an overheard conversation, but the full scope of what the class’s theme was saying did not fully hit me until, for the first time since I commenced my transformation in January, I came face-to-face with real tragedy. Last week, as I was working on this paper, a close friend of my boyfriend’s committed suicide.
As I watched the tears stream down his face as he contemplated time after time about what could have driven his friend to take his own life, I struggled with how to console him. The last thing anyone going through a tough time wants to hear is, “I know how you feel”, which is, sadly, what so many of them wind up hearing. Even if I had wanted to say that to him, I have no idea how he felt. Every person suffers differently, but I wanted to do something to help ease his pain. In a move that may have caused him even more anguish, I asked him to watch Romeo and Juliet with me. Luck being, he was actually a fan of the 1996 Baz Luhrmann production, so he consented fairly easily. At the very least, I thought, a movie would distract him for a bit. But, I hoped for a bit more: perhaps catharsis can help ease feelings of pain even as fresh as his. As the movie ended, my boyfriend started to seem a little bit better. At the very least, he had stopped beating himself up about why such a great person would take his own life. I began to wonder if thing about “I know how you feel” somehow got turned backwards throughout the ages. Maybe when my boyfriend saw Juliet’s realization that her beloved had taken his own life, he wanted to utter a small, “I know how you feel”. This may have helped me answer one of the questions I always had about tragedy: If catharsis is so effective, why must we suffer in real life at all?
Tragedy as a literary genre focuses on the individual; tragic events in real life are much the same. A death of a loved one can make an individual feel all alone even in a world of over 6 billion people. Tragic literature shows an individual that he is not alone in his suffering. Tragedies show a person that at some time, somewhere, a person was hurting just as badly as he is and that that person was immortalized in a text, forever available for that one person in any single moment that really needs a catharsis. Tragedy shows everyone that in any situation, good or tragic, there is always someone they can identify with.
Because of this and many transformations I have undergone this semester, I have learned that no matter how alone I feel I will always have Juliet, King Lear, or Hecuba to cry with. Aristotle taught me that suffering along with those characters will help heal my own suffering just a little bit, just enough to pull through. Literature binds us into one entity which spans languages, seas and centuries to remind us that, no matter how rough things get, we are never alone.
Dictionary.com. Ask.com. 16 Apr. 2009
Hadas, Moses, and John McLean, trans. Ten Plays by Euripides. New York: Bantam
Classics, Random House, 2006.
Romeo and Juliet. Dir. Baz Lurhmann. Perf. Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. DVD. 1996.